We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. Maybe we imagined a real country where folks got along just fine. All we had to do is remove Saddam Hussein and there it would be. What were we thinking? As each of the Republican candidates tries to say that our Iraq war was sort of a mistake – if we knew now what we didn’t know then, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, we wouldn’t have gone in, but we didn’t know that then, so it wasn’t exactly a mistake, really – each misses the point. We went in. Now what?
There are no good choices. See What We Have Done – We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. But ISIS is the old Sunni opposition, left over from the days of Hussein, and the rest of the Sunnis, in Anbar and Ramadi, want their country back. They want Abadi gone, and he knows it. They’ll also tolerate ISIS – so when Haider al-Abadi sends his hapless army out to fight ISIS and his army runs away, he calls in the Shiite militias to get the job done. They are freelancers and are mostly aligned with Iran, our bitter enemy who wants to rid the region of the Sunni bad guys as much as we do. Some Iranian generals show up to help out now and then too. We pretend they’re not there.
That, however, is all we have to fight ISIS at the moment. Unfortunately, those Shiite militias are likely to slaughter every Sunni in sight, including women and children, and that isn’t going to move Iraq any closer to being a unified country where everyone gets along. Do we arm the Sunni tribes now? They have their own militias. If we did that everyone would be fighting ISIS together, but the Sunni folks would try to overthrow Abadi sooner or later, and Iraq, as the secular Jeffersonian democracy that we thought it should be, would be gone. The point of the whole exercise was to restore the nation of Iraq as it was meant to be. Everyone would get along just fine after we removed the Sunni tyrant Saddam Hussein. There’d be free and open elections and everyone would have a say.
We arranged those elections, and then discovered that none of the locals believed in the notion of Iraq. The Sunni Arabs in the west and the Shiite Arabs in the south and east and the Kurds up north – Sunnis but ethnically not Arabs – wanted nothing to do with each other. They never had. The Shiites took over. Baghdad is in their sector. The Sunnis took their sector in the west, and they took over eastern Syria too. The Kurds would have nothing to do with those two groups of fools down south. They acted as if they had their own country all along, and that’s worked out pretty well for them. We were the only ones that believed there was such a place as Iraq.
That was naïve, but forgivable. This all started in 1916 with that Sykes–Picot Agreement that created Iraq and most of these countries over there out of thin air, or hot sand. See The War to Start All Wars – decisions made at the end of the First World War seem to have generated almost all of the wars that followed, and certainly generated every current war in the Middle East. The division of what was left of the Ottoman Empire in that region into discrete brand-new nations, once the Kaiser was gone, was a bit arbitrary.
The locals are trying to fix that. ISIS has often displayed big “End of Sykes-Picot” banners when they have taken over a town or city. We’re the ones who still support the decisions of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region. We went over there to insure the integrity of their new somewhat imaginary nations. Those nations aren’t new now, and stability is a good thing. No one would attack us here if things were stable there. That was the general idea.
That turned out to be a fool’s errand, but there’s no need to name the specific fools. It’s enough to know that they’re all working for Jeb Bush now – his new team of foreign policy advisors. We WILL have order over there!
That’s a tall order, but what might be called the pro-Sykes–Picot Republicans insist on it:
Three Senate Republicans are calling on President Obama to change his strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the wake of the terrorist group’s capture of Ramadi.
“If you don’t change your strategy… then this country is very likely to get attacked in another 9/11 fashion,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Obama from the Senate floor.
Graham, who is considering a presidential run, warned Obama to take action now to avoid a “huge mistake.”
Obama, however, tries to avoid mistakes:
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that the president will speed up training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters in an effort to erase gains made by ISIS, also referred to ISIL. But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters later Wednesday that there is currently “no formal strategy review that is underway,” according to a White House pool report.
Obama is being careful. He seems to know that the work of those two long-dead British and French diplomats has caused no end of trouble. Others don’t know that:
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also criticized the administration’s strategy, saying it has become bogged down in a “paralysis by analysis.”
“I hope this is a wake-up call to the Obama administration and that they will provide the Congress and the American people and our troops a clear path forward to defeat ISIL and to rid the world of this terror army,” he added.
Then it got worse:
The senators’ comments came as Obama spoke Wednesday about the threat climate change poses to national security.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, slammed the president’s focus on climate change, asking if the administration gives “a damn about what’s happening in the streets of Ramadi?”
“Ramadi should lead our nation’s leaders to reconsider an indecisive and a total lack of strategy that has done little to roll back ISIL,” McCain said.
What strategy would they propose? Slate’s Fred Kaplan calls them out:
Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.
For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect – the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?
Kaplan says options are limited:
Logistics, intelligence, airstrikes to help local anti-ISIS forces on the ground – this is what the United States can best offer. Officers and analysts on the ground say that airstrikes terrify many ISIS fighters, who tend to attack in swarms, which provide concentrated targets for a bomb. These sources confirm a report in the New York Times that ISIS launched its crucial attack on Ramadi during a major sandstorm, when pilots (of airplanes or drones) could not have seen its movements on the ground below.
But even in clear weather, airstrikes alone aren’t sufficient. ISIS mingles with the locals (in some cases, they are the locals), making it hard for pilots to distinguish friends (or neutral innocents) from foes. Ground assaults are needed, too – by other locals, who are more likely to speak the language, understand the situation, and wrest away the allegiance of those in the ISIS’s grip or sway.
There may be no role for us in that. If we want stability there, so they don’t attack us here, we may have to let them draw new borders for themselves. We drew precise borders for them long ago. They didn’t like those borders, and now they hate them. Let them work this out this time. That may be the only thing that assures stability over there.
Actually, Joe Biden got it right in 2007:
Biden, then a senator, championed a more federal system explicitly allowed by the Iraqi constitution (at the insistence of the Kurds), devolving power from the central government in Baghdad to the provinces. Although Biden denied it at the time, his proposal would almost certainly have led to the de facto soft partition of Iraq into three autonomous regions dominated by Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. A similar approach in the 1990s patched together Bosnia out of the detritus of the Balkans civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. In a 2007 op-ed, Biden warned, “If the United States can’t put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind.”
He was ahead of his time. “Biden got it dead right, and I still think transitioning to a federal power-sharing arrangement is the only way to stop the killing and hold Iraq together,” says Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote the op-ed with Biden.
At the time, Biden was arguing that Bush’s “surge” wasn’t going to work. It didn’t. If it had, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The only possible “Iraq” might be three nations with one name and maybe a common currency. Our doctrine could have been “Stability Abroad and Security at Home through stepping back and Letting Others Decide What They Want” – but of course we don’t think that way. Obama catches enough flak for his “leading from behind” on this and that, even it works just fine. Americans don’t step back.
That’s because stepping back is scary, and the New Republic’s Jeet Heer explains here that Marco Rubio wants to scare Americans into voting for him:
Monday, Marco Rubio announced the new theme of his campaign: “The fundamental problem we have in America is that nothing matters if we aren’t safe.” According to Rubio, “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” which means “the economic stuff” has to take a backseat to national security. …
This black-and-white language negates the possibility that security is one value among others, that it needs to be balanced against competing values such as liberty or peace. It’s hard to imagine cruder appeals to fear.
Steve Benen takes it from there:
Part of the challenge for Rubio is overcoming his general distaste for policy depth, especially in areas of national security. The Florida Republican has a great affinity for catchphrases and over-simplified principles, which frequently generate applause from far-right audiences feasting on red meat, but which often makes it seem as if the senator has no idea what he’s talking about.
Last week, for example, Rubio declared “our strategy” on national security should mirror Liam Neeson’s catchphrase in the film “Taken”: “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”
Soon after, the candidate’s team unveiled the “Rubio Doctrine” – described by Charles Pierce as “three banalities strung together in such a way as to sound profound and to say nothing.”
Jon Chait called the arguments that Rubio was making insanely wrong:
Rubio’s claim that the world “has never been more dangerous than it is today” is not just wrong but insanely wrong. How about when a massive communist empire threatened us with nuclear annihilation? Or when Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan launched a war of extermination? Or when the Mongols amassed the largest land conquest in human history and left behind smoking ruins and pyramids of skulls?
As Stephen Pinker has argued, the world has in fact grown comprehensively safer in nearly every respect. This is true whether safety is defined in humanitarian or geopolitical terms. Disease and starvation, the main killers of humanity, are in retreat. Far more people live in democratic states, and fewer in autocratic ones. Armed conflict has declined precipitously…
Of course, most Americans, who are quite safe, have little awareness of aggregate measures of safety. There are still frightening figures committing barbaric acts on their television screens, in Iraq and elsewhere. Rubio’s argument – to the extent he has any analytic basis for his platform, which is questionable – is that Americans must regard these threats with a terror so comprehensive it blots out all other considerations. You may not be thrilled with a candidate who promises to repeal the security of Obamacare and eliminate all taxes on amassed wealth, but you have no choice, because “nothing matters.” He is the candidate who will ask over and over again, “Is it safe?”
At its core, Rubio’s message is as vacuous as anything we’ve seen in a while. “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe”? That’s a pretty radical proposition on its own, but just as important is the fact the far-right senator hasn’t presented any kind of meaningful strategy that would improve our security, aside from shallow rhetoric about “toughness” and “strength.”
Indeed, Rubio seems to operate from the assumption that wars and military offensives will, practically by definition, generate “safety” – a posture most of us already know to be wrong.
As a doctrine it is absurd, and Peter Beinart takes us through our history of doctrines:
Presidential “doctrines” have a long history in American foreign policy. The earliest, and most famous, was James Monroe’s insistence that the United States would prevent European powers from gaining a beachhead in the Americas. More than 80 years later, Theodore Roosevelt added the “corollary” that in order to prevent the kind of instability that might invite foreign meddling in the region, the United States could intervene to topple Latin American governments. In 1947, in an effort to justify aid to anti-communist regimes in Greece and Turkey, Harry Truman outlined the doctrine of containment, by which the U.S. would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Jimmy Carter refocused that doctrine on the Persian Gulf, where he vowed that the U.S. would use military force to repel Soviet domination. Ronald Reagan turned containment on its head by insisting that the U.S. would not merely prevent Soviet expansion but aid anti-communist rebels seeking to roll back pro-Soviet regimes. Finally, in response to the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush took this aggression a step further by arguing that rather than deterring or containing hostile regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. would launch preventive wars to overthrow them.
Not all these doctrines served America well. And not all of them were even announced as presidential doctrines. Reagan, for instance, simply began arming Nicaragua’s Contras, Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen, and Angola’s UNITA rebels in their fights against communist regimes – which prompted columnist Charles Krauthammer, seeing a pattern, to call such aid the “Reagan doctrine.” The phrase stuck.
But what all these doctrines had in common was that they constituted an effort to define, and answer, the specific challenge of a given time. For Monroe, it was hemispheric independence. For Truman, it was communist expansion. For Carter, it was threats to America’s oil supply.
Rubio “doctrine” as he explained it in a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations does not do that:
The Rubio doctrine, which the Florida senator announced on Wednesday, “consists of three pillars.” Pillar number one is “American strength”: America must “adequately fund our military.” Pillar number two is “the protection of the American economy”: America must pursue “free trade.” Pillar number three is “clarity regarding America’s core values”: America must “support the spread of economic and political freedom by reinforcing our alliances, resisting efforts by large powers to subjugate their smaller neighbors” and “advancing the rights of the vulnerable.”
These, Rubio told moderator Charlie Rose, “are timeless truths.” But that’s precisely the problem. Historically, foreign-policy doctrines have been the opposite of “timeless.” They represent efforts to further American interests and ideals by offering a specific response to a specific geopolitical reality. Every president wants the United States to be strong, prosperous, and moral. Doctrines are supposed to outline a strategy for achieving those goals. They are not the goals themselves.
Rubio, then, wasn’t saying what his amazing new doctrine would actually do:
In his speech, Rubio did discuss certain policy preferences. He supports giving the president fast-track authority for trade agreements. He wants to boost military spending. He opposes President Obama’s negotiations with Iran. What he didn’t do was explain what sets this age apart from past ones, and outline the precise strategy America needs right now.
There’s a reason for that:
Rubio and most of the other GOP candidates want the United States to go on offense overseas after the perceived retrenchment of the Obama years. But Americans have little appetite for additional wars, and the threat that Republicans focus on most – “radical Islam” – lumps together states and organizations that are not only disparate, but bitterly hostile to each other. Truman’s “containment” doctrine and Reagan’s doctrine of “rollback” each had problems. But at least they were aimed at a specific enemy. Rubio can’t lay out a doctrine like that today because the two enemies he and other Republicans talk about most – Iran and ISIS – are only linked in the conservative imagination. On the ground, they’re at war.
That is a problem, but this was inevitable:
When you’re running against candidates like Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee, appearing serious on foreign policy isn’t hard. But the closer you look at the “doctrine” that supposedly guides Rubio’s approach to the world, the less serious it looks. Anyone can enunciate “timeless truths.” Serious candidates explain novel ways to pursue them given the particular circumstances of their time. At the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, Rubio barely tried.
Obama is more practical. He has an informal doctrine, often invoked in White House strategy sessions – “Don’t do stupid shit” – and there was a lot of controversy about that when folks found out. Hillary Clinton said that she hated that ad hoc approach to the world and its challenges – but she and Obama later met and smoothed things over. She came to like that doctrine. It may also be the appropriate doctrine for the Middle East at the moment. We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. So step back. Don’t do anything stupid. We’ve had a dozen or more years of that – and doctrines should be useful. We’re still waiting for one of those from the Republicans.